Damaged by the 1994 Northridge earthquake and out of service for repair and retrofitting since then, Royce Hall UCLA’s handsome landmark auditorium, with probably the best acoustics west of Carnegie Hall, is back in service as of this week. That gladsome news will surely outlast the incidental information that the hall’s inaugural entertainment raised a few eyebrows, and a few hackles as well.
In 1976, the 35-year-old Texas-born Robert Wilson and the 38-year-old Baltimorean Philip Glass pooled their efforts in a phenomenal if undefinable stage work called “Einstein on the Beach,” widely and rightly hailed as an innovative giant step. Aside from their work on the multinational, stillborn “CIVIL warS” in 1984, the collaborators have gone their separate and successful ways. Word of a new Glass/Wilson product to inaugurate the restored Royce Hall, not surprisingly, raised high expectations.
These were largely dashed, however. The ultimate impression left by “Monsters of Grace” is that of a rummage through the discards of creative artists who approached the new project at less than full strength: Glass, with yet another slice of the now-famous motoric burblings of his electronic orchestra over which a melodic line wanders prettily but aimlessly; Wilson, with the striking but glacially slow-moving stage pictures and light-show effects that stamp his uniqueness (but which also brought him boos as director of the Metropolitan Opera’s recent “Lohengrin”).
For text, Glass drew upon the sensuous love-lyrics of the 13th century Sufi poet Rumi, flattened into colloquial English in Coleman Barks’ translation and intoned by singers in the pit joined in close harmony reminiscent of the Andrews Sisters. Wilson’s designs — translated from his story-boards into 3-D film by video innovators Jeff Kleiser and Diane Walczak and therefore requiring an audience to don special glasses as in the legendary “Bwana Devil” and “House of Wax” B movies of times gone by — come across like an anthology of his Greatest Images from the past.
At a panel before Wednesday’s performance, Wilson attempted a brave face on the work, with exaggerated praise for the freedom gleaned by working with film rather than live stage action. To admirers of his previous work, however, this comes over as a perverse decision; the glory of his stage work is exactly the interplay between human actions and innovative stagecraft — above all, light. Even the title, “Monsters of Grace” seems to trivialize the undertaking — it originated, says Wilson, as a slip of his tongue while reading the “ministers of grace” line from “Hamlet.”
The full title, in fact, is “Monsters of Grace 1.0”; software aficionados will recognize the “1.0” as suggesting a preliminary version. Of the 13 scenes in the Glass/Wilson scenario, only seven had been completed on film for the Los Angeles run; live actors — including 6-1/2-year-old Cooper Gerrard trudging the stage in nicely controlled slow motion — filled in-between times. The plan is to replace the blanks with more Kleiser/Walczak film in future engagements, thus moving the work ever farther from the realm in which Robert Wilson’s genius best operates.
“Monsters of Grace” may, in fact, be the world’s first self-constructing opera. As a celebratory piece to reopen a concert hall famous for its acoustics and its stage amenities, a work mostly on film and with all its sound emanating from monster loudspeakers — and only half-finished at that — it provided its star-studded opening-night audience with more questions than answers.
The hall, at least, is gorgeous.